Monday, December 27, 2004

The doing / allowing distinction

Matt Yglesias makes some good consequentialist arguments for bringing back corporal punishment. I imagine that lots of the resistance to this idea comes from the different attitudes people have to doing harms (for example, by flogging a criminal) and allowing harms (for example, by putting a criminal in prison where other prisoners keep raping him). Even if it isn't me personally doing the flogging but the government acting as my representative, corporal punishment trips the 'doing' intuition. On the other hand, the harms done to the criminal by other prisoners count as things I've allowed but not as things that I've done. Doing harms is usually taken much more seriously than allowing them.

It's interesting how imprisonment -- the currency of punishment today -- allows us to do so little harm but allow so much.


Kathy K said...

Interesting indeed.

Brings up a 'philisophical' question I've seen asked here and there. Is it right to do a harm to prevent a greater one?

For instance, if killing 1000 people would prevent the deaths of millions, would it be right to do it? And what if you were one of the 1000?

Neil Sinhababu said...

As a utilitarian, I'm committed to considering the distinction between doing and allowing to be morally irrelevant. So it's right to kill a thousand to save a million, regardless of which group you fall into. Certainly, it would be harder to kill a thousand if you were among them, but this is just a case where it takes some extra guts to do the right thing.

gt said...

Prison rape isn't about allowing, it's about enabling.
When you take away someone's liberty, you then have a responsibility for their well-being that you otherwise wouldn't have.
I was assaulted (non-sexually) in jail about a year ago. While I blame my assailants, I even more blame CCA,
the private prison company that put me (a pre-trial detainee) in with convicted criminals, and the prosecutor who didn't bother to find out if there was any good faith belief in the trumped up case against me.
My aardvark style kungfu consists mostly of running and hiding, and that's hard to do while locked up.

Blue said...

Our current punishment system is one that's very good at stopping upper class criminals, and bad at stopping lower class criminals, economically speaking. If punishment for similar crimes is doled out only in time, then someone earning $100,000 a year has much more incentive not to commit crime / risk getting caught than someone earning $15,000 a year. (There are of course many other factors (prison being more relatively tolerable for someone used to a lower class environment, or a prison record being a permanent reduction in future salary) but these tend to support the former).

Similarly, crimes for which there are mainly fines (tickets, etc) have more effect on lower class than upper. If we switched all punishment to fines, we might get a reverse effect. Would this be better or worse, I don't know.

Now, the thing about corporal punishment, is that (ideally) it's just a direct utility loss, right there. Whether you earn $100,000 a year or $15,000, it still hurts to get your ass kicked. Now it's not as simple as that of course, but this is still more equal across the board than other methods.

I think our main stigma against corporal punishment is that culturally and historically speaking it's very much associated with corruption and abuse of power.